My good friend Vince made a comment on this blog yesterday, raising an important subject that deserves discussion. He wrote, “I think one of our problems is that we as believers have followed the world in being a consumerist people. If the church doesn’t have what we want or do exactly what we want them to do we pack it up and go to a different church.” I wholeheartedly agree with what he said, though I think two definitions might help clarify.
Wikipedia defines consumers as “individuals or households that consume goods and services generated within the economy.” Clearly, then, almost every one of us is a consumer to some degree. If we pay for goods or services rendered by a manufacturer or service provider of any sort, we are consumers. It seems to me that there is nothing inherently wrong with being a consumer. But this is very different that what Vince correctly identifies as consumerism. Wikipedia defines consumerism as “the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing material possessions and consumption.” We all know what this looks like, of course. At some time or another we all have invested a bit of hope in the “next new thing” to bring us lasting happiness. That is, at least, until we have the next new thing for a month, or a week, or even a few days, and realize that it just doesn’t make us as happy as we had hoped it would. This happened to me last summer, when I rushed home every day for about a week, in hopes that my new mobile phone had been delivered to my front porch, bringing exciting and boundless new possibilities into my life. Now my phone is lost somewhere in Wisconsin Dells and, to be quite honest, I’m not all that eager to get it back. This -ism has pervaded Western culture, being inculcated on us, it would seem, primarily by way of carefully devised advertising campaigns, and it is profoundly sinful because it preaches a gospel of happiness by materialism and immediate gratification.
The effects of consumerism, I fear, on church life are exactly as Vince has portrayed, because at the heart of consumerism is the belief that I deserve to be happy and I deserve it right now. TiVo, iPod, wireless internet, etc., while not necessarily being morally questionable in and of themselves, nevertheless foster consumerism by providing us with what we desire on demand. Many of us, including myself at times, have carried this -ism into church life, demanding (or at least desiring) that church be “done” just the way we want it to be, and, by the way, “Hurry it up, please.” I have to believe that we would all do well to recognize that the Church is an institution full of imperfect—though generally well-intentioned—people, but it is also an exceptional institution in that it has shown itself throughout history, both on a macro and micro scale, to be an institution open to reformation, correction, enrichment and evolution. Still, recognition is not enough. It is vital that we are all willing joyfully to contribute our unique spiritual gifts, talents, and knowledge to the task of shaping and strengthening the church. We must pray for those who have been appointed as leaders. We must let our voices be heard. And we must have patience. Churches make changes like aircraft carriers make turns, friends. But an aircraft carrier with a solid rudder, a good captain, and a willing crew eventually makes good turns, just as a church with biblical foundations, godly pastors and elders, and a willing congregation will make God-honoring changes.
Of course, this isn’t the easy thing to do. Consumerism is the -ism of ease, to coin a phrase. The easy thing to do, when we bump up against something we don’t like in the church, is to find a different church. That is, until we discover that the new church has its own unique imperfections, and we’ve only come back to where we started. It isn’t the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing, the most ultimately satisfying thing, and, most importantly, the most God-honoring thing.